Lost Bullet

Traces

Malcolm Rose

Kingfisher

Chapter One
<p
The white boy walking along Tottenham Court Corridor spotted a tree snake
in the elder plant growing up the side of a house. He was about to move on,
staying away from it, when he was distracted by a small piece of paper that
fluttered out of an upstairs window. Pushed along by the breeze, the piece of
notepaper sailed straight toward his head. Owen grabbed it in his fist as if
he'd caught a moth that was threatening to land on his face. Immediately,
there was a scream. "White scum!" It was so loud, so angry, and so high-
pitched that Owen could not even tell if it had come from a man or a woman.
He wasn't going to hang around to find out who had shouted because he
recognized pure hatred in that voice. He shoved the piece of paper into his
pocket and ran.
<p
On both sides of Owen rampant ivy, elder, and clematis were choking the
buildings. The rifle poking ominously out of the window above and behind him
was camouflaged by the masses of leaves. When Owen heard the first shot,
he let out a frightened yelp and ducked. Covering his head with his hands
would have been useless against the bullet if it had been on target, but it
thudded into the trunk of the elm tree just to his right. Refusing to freeze with
fear, he dashed away quickly. Weaving his way down the windy London
corridor, swerving around the trees that had pushed their way up through the
tarmac, he tried to make it difficult for the sniper to get a clear shot at him.
The second bullet ricocheted off the ground in front of him and to the left, but
the third caught his hand. He cried out in pain but did not dare stop. Cradling
his injured left hand in his right, he stumbled on toward the intersection. In a
few seconds he could turn on to Oxford Freeway, safe from the person with
an itchy finger on the trigger. As he dodged around another tree, a window
shattered with the force of the next stray shot.
<p
Once, before Owen was born, Oxford Freeway had been busy with automatic
cabs, its walkway bustling with pedestrians. But no one had been employed
to maintain it—or any of central London's routes—so nature had reclaimed
lost territory. The cabs' onboard computers, equipped with the latest artificial
intelligence, soon learned to avoid the center of London because it became
impossible to negotiate the erupting trees and shrubs. Besides, too many
passengers and pedestrians were mugged in those parts to risk it.
<p
Owen knew Oxford Freeway only as a concrete and wildlife jungle, the
natural habitat of rats, snakes, and crooks. Still, until bullets learned how to
turn corners, he could escape in the neglected freeway.
<p
At the sound of another gunshot, two red squirrels darted up an old elm tree.
At once, Owen felt his right foot give way as if someone had kicked it out
from under him. He gasped and faltered, yet he experienced no pain. He
expected to cry out in agony when he put his weight back on that leg, but he
felt only some extra pressure on his heel. The bullet had hit the tarmac,
bounced up, thudded into the sole of his shoe, and come to rest harmlessly
in the thick layer of rubber.
<p
Desperate to stay on his feet, Owen staggered to the intersection with Oxford
Freeway. Two small patches of ivy clawing up the closest house exploded,
revealing red bricks underneath. Chest heaving, Owen darted around the
corner, where he was shielded from the rifle fire. Yet he did not relax or slow
down. He scurried along the corridor in case the sniper came out of hiding
and tailed him. Avoiding the tangle of overgrown vegetation, he raced as fast
as he could, still clutching his bleeding left hand, until he got to Wardour
Walkway. Turning left into the narrow passage, he zigzagged through the
warren of alleys to lose anyone who might try to follow him.
<p
The stiffening breeze pushed him through the jungle of Soho, along with
masses of fallen brown leaves. He emerged at Haymarket and headed for
Whitehall and the Thames river. If he could pick a safe path over the
crumbling Westminster Bridge, he could admit himself to Thomas's Hospital
and get his hand fixed. The hospital had a reputation for not asking too many
awkward questions before offering treatment. Owen glanced nervously behind
him, but the place was almost deserted. Of course, it wasn't really deserted.
It was just that, for their own protection, many people stayed behind locked
doors—or at least out of sight. Anyway, Owen couldn't see anyone carrying
a rifle. He dropped to walking pace, limping slightly because of the lump of
metal embedded in the heel of his shoe, and made his way toward the
Thames.
<p
On the riverside a group of people had hijacked a narrow cargo boat that
should have been cruising sedately through the city, programmed to ignore
London and deliver its goods to the heart of England. The goods on this
particular autobarge would feed and clothe London bandits, not the plush
Midlands. Picking his way carefully across the run-down bridge, Owen looked
down at the thieves shouting to each other below him on the South Bank.
One boy stood out from the rest because he was completely bald. No doubt
the bandits would have time to empty the boat because The Authorities were
never in a hurry to deal with petty theft in London.
<p
There was a burning sensation in Owen's left palm. As far as he could tell,
the bullet had gone straight through the fleshy part between his thumb and
forefinger. Like everyone else who ventured into central London, Owen had
been injured a few times, but he had never been shot before. It was a new
and painful experience. It had taken him by surprise also because he had
become skilled at avoiding crime, especially muggings, along the London
corridors.
<p
Those outbursts of violence were often caused by people who were terrified of
London's reputation. When they went out, they armed themselves with a
hefty piece of metal or wood for self-defense.
<p
Conventional firearms were popular for leisure activities, but in the corridors
they were not common. The stinger—an electric stun gun—had become the
bandits' weapon of choice. The person on the other end of that rifle wasn't a
traditional mugger. It could have just been someone who was insanely
protective of his property, but Owen had never been targeted on Tottenham
Court Corridor before. It could have been someone who had decided to take
potshots at passersby for fun, but the taunt about the color of his skin made
Owen believe that he'd been singled out.
<p
Waiting in a hospital cubicle, encircled by flimsy curtains, Owen dug the
scrap of plain white paper out of his pocket and held it in his right hand.
Someone had written "72 Russell Plaza," in blue ink, on a page from a
notepad. That was it. Nothing else. There wasn't even anything on the other
side. Owen shrugged, and when Dr. Suleman entered, he slipped the note
back into his pocket without another thought.
<p
The doctor turned her nose up at the sight of her patient. "Oh dear," she
muttered.
<p
Owen was not sure whether the doctor was referring to his injury, his
genetically flawed skin, or his rough appearance. For a second he thought
that he saw disapproval in Dr. Suleman's eyes. At least it wasn't the
prejudice of the person who had hoped to bury a bullet in Owen's heart or
head rather than his hand and heel. Owen held up his blood-encrusted hand
and said, "It's a bullet wound."
<p
"Oh dear," Dr. Suleman repeated. Gingerly, maybe even reluctantly, she
examined the damaged palm but did not ask why Owen had been shot. "It
looks worse than it is." Talking to a hidden computer, she called for a scan
and then watched a three-dimensional skeletal image form in the air just in
front of her. She walked around the hologram, studying the wound carefully
from all angles, and then announced, "You're lucky."
<p
"I am?"
<p
"It could've been worse. The bullet's nicked a bone, but it'll heal on its own. I
can give you a local anesthetic, clean it up, and sew it back together. You'll
be fine." She paused before adding, "I don't suppose you've got an identity
card, do you?"
<p
"Do I need one? Not sure where mine is."
<p
The doctor shook her head like an instructor confronting a hopeless
student. "Never mind," she said as if she'd rather report him to The
Authorities.
<p
In Owen's mind her tone confirmed it. The doctor disliked his lifestyle rather
than his color. "Thanks," he said, ignoring her anxiety.
<p
While she worked on the wound, Dr. Suleman asked Owen where he had
been attacked. "Tottenham Court? I'll watch that on the way home."
<p
"Don't think you'll have the same problem," Owen replied.
<p
"Why's that?"
<p
"Likely it was a brown supremacy thing."
<p
The doctor nodded knowingly but said nothing.
<p
Owen decided to leave the spent bullet in the sole of his shoe, where it would
be his secret memento of a daring escape from a crazed sniper. With a
bandaged and throbbing hand, he walked away from Thomas's Hospital. Just
along the bank the bandits were still emptying the barge that they had
commandeered. The blustery wind was threatening to develop into a full-scale
storm. Glancing up at the bad-tempered clouds that were gathering in the
dark sky, Owen grimaced. It was time to find shelter.
<p
Once Anna Suleman used to flash her identity card past the freeway reader,
state her home address, and then jump into a cab. As soon as she was
seated, the computerized cab would take off along Westminster, over the
bridge, and seek out a passable route on the corridors running north. Now it
was useless to call for one. She hadn't seen a vehicle between the hospital
and her home near Regent's Common for years. Instead she walked. If her
partner was working the same shift, they would walk together. Now that cabs
avoided the place, they had a choice of paths. They could stay on the
intended walkways, they could use the large freeways that had both
walkways and corridors, or they could trudge along the disused corridors,
where walking used to be forbidden because of the danger from high-speed
cabs.
<p
Today, after her shift at Thomas's Hospital, Dr. Suleman stepped out into the
dusk alone and was drenched almost immediately. The November downpour
had begun in style. The thirsty vegetation relished the driving rainfall, but
Anna cursed. As she walked toward the bridge, she blinked over and over
again to try to keep her vision clear and to stop the wind and raindrops from
stinging her tired eyes. All that she could see, though, was mist. There was
possibly something to her left, a sudden movement like a shifting shadow,
but then it was gone. Perhaps it was a trick of the storm.
<p
It was hopeless. She could not walk through this weather. She spun around
and headed back for the hospital entrance. It was then that the shape
returned—definitely this time. It was a figure, striding toward her, holding . . .
something. Anna squinted her eyes, but it was like trying to see a bat flying
across the night sky. "Is anybody there?"
<p
The slippery figure had vanished again. There was nothing but the ferocious
sound of the angry cloudburst. The closest lamp was flickering on and off.
Probably water was getting inside it and wreaking havoc with the electrical
contacts. The rest of the lights were battling to keep night at bay but
succeeded only in illuminating countless raindrops.
<p
"Alex? Is that you?" Anna called.
<p
This time there was an answer. "Are you a doctor?"
<p
Dr. Suleman stopped and shouted in the direction of the voice, "Yes. Are you
hurt?" She wiped her eyes. "Where are you? What do you want?"
<p
Lightning punctured the air. Anna heard one more word before the thunder
deafened her. "Respect!" Through the deluge she could barely see the person
who had spoken. She certainly didn't see the rifle. Engulfed by nature's fierce
roar, she could not distinguish the explosion of the storm from the brutal
blast of the weapon.